Sephardic Musician Lily Henley Keeps Jewish Folk Tradition Alive

Henley spoke to Hey Alma about her Ladino album “Oras Dezaoradas” and how she “can’t not” incorporate Jewishness into her music.

Lily Henley is, and always has been, an outsider. “To me, that’s what being Jewish is,” the Sephardic singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and composer told me, returning to this theme multiple times throughout our Zoom conversation.

If you know anything about her, it’s not hard to see how this identity formed. Lily, now based in Brooklyn, described her childhood as “itinerant-style”; she and her family moved every few years, from the Midwest to the far reaches of Alaska and even abroad for awhile. They were often the only Jews in those spaces, creating a sense of dissonance between Lily and the small communities she grew up in.

Music was a grounding force for her. “My family is very musical. Nobody’s a professional musician, but music is a big part of how we all relate to each other,” she explained. “I grew up singing a lot with them, and as a pretty young child I learned some Sephardic songs with my parents.” She picked up the violin at 11, attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, and released her first album, “Words Like Yours,” in 2012 — which led to features at Jewish festivals and Carnegie Hall.

Still, as a Sephardic Jew living in the United States — where Ashkenazi culture is considered the norm — Lily sometimes felt like an outsider even within Jewish communities.

So it feels apt that Lily’s latest album, “Oras Dezaoradas,” serves as both an exploration of Lily’s own outsider Jewish identity and as euphonic time travel, connecting the listener with the history of Sephardic diaspora.

“Oras Dezaoradas,” a Ladino phrase which means “Hours Without Hours” in English, is an ode to the Ladino language and Sephardic culture. Comprising 10 tracks, three of which are fully original songs, the album sets the texts of old Sephardic love ballads and medieval poems to new melodies composed by Henley. Save a few English verses, the album, which Lily wrote between 2018 and 2019, is entirely in Ladino.

This is an album written in an endangered language and coming from a culture forced into diaspora by the Spanish expulsion — so it’s no surprise that it tells tales of tragedy and separation. The song “Arvoles Lloran Por Lluvia” is rife with anxiety; in English, its refrain translates to “I lament and wonder / What will happen to me? / On foreign lands I have come to die / I have come only to die.” Similarly, the narrator of “La Galud” remembers, from exile, the safe and stable life they once had and will never have again.

And yet, there is also joy to be found on Henley’s album through its strong and playful female voices. In “Morena Me Yaman,” the narrator, a so-called “wild girl,” proudly owns her lack of innocence. “Esta Noche Te Amare” sees a woman reject her lover, a man who wishes to marry her. And in “Duermite Mi Alma,” a wife discovers her husband is unfaithful and kicks him out.

I spoke with Lily about “Oras Dezaoradas” and how she “can’t not” incorporate Jewishness into her music.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Could you tell me about your Jewish identity and background?

My family’s both Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Until I was 12, my family was not particularly religious. But there was always a strong sense of Jewish identity and I was always really aware of Sephardic culture as a kid — partly because we lived in a lot of Hispanic communities, and [being Sephardic] was sort of a personal connection to that, and [people in those communities] would often identify me as belonging. I learned Spanish as a kid because of a desire to belong.

Because we lived in so many really rural places where we were the only Jewish people, [I was often] the only Jewish person anyone had ever met. And that’s a lot of pressure. But it also means I identify with being the outsider. It has made me very empathetic towards anything outside of the norm: social justice feels really important to my Jewish identity.

When we moved to the Midwest when I was about 12, my family experienced overt antisemitism — real serious, exclusionary, in-your-face antisemitism. And that is when I was like, OK, if I’m going to be ridiculed and excluded because of this, then I need to understand what it is and I want to know why people feel this way. Because I didn’t grow up in an insulated Jewish community, my journey to understanding my own Jewish identity has so much to do with exploring how my Jewishness relates to the non-Jewish world.

That’s part of my inspiration for doing this album. Of course, I want to play music for Jewish audiences. But I’m not really interested in being in an insulated Jewish space. That’s not really my comfort zone. And I really want people who only know Jewish culture as this monolithic entity, people who just think of “Seinfeld” and bagels and lox, or even think of something negative — I want them to experience all the nuance. Not just for the purpose of understanding Jewish culture, but for the purpose of asking questions about all the micro-culture inside of culture in general.

In the United States, there’s a lot of desire to fit yourself into [a] box. As a Sephardic person living in places where I could not fit neatly into one box, I feel like that’s probably more true for everyone than our culture allows. I hope that people who listen to my album get this constant exploration around identity.

Did you grow up speaking Ladino? Or was it something you learned for this album?

I grew up singing in Ladino. Ladino is a super endangered language, and hardly anybody my age grows up speaking it — I’ve actually never met a native speaker my age. The language was actually lost in my family. I’m not sure who the last person was in my family that spoke it. It’s been a slow reclamation.

Like I said, I learned Spanish as a kid; I learned some Hebrew and sang in Hebrew as a kid, and got more serious as an adult. Spanish and Hebrew are related to Ladino, so I had those connections. When I got serious about delving into the repertoire [of Sephardic folk music] and learning more songs than the ones that I grew up with, I started doing more investigation.

This year, I’ve been studying [Ladino] in an official capacity. I’ve been in Paris for the last seven months on a Fulbright [scholarship]. One of the main things I’m doing, other than creating music, is taking Ladino class at the university and the community center. (Paris has the second-largest Sephardic community in the world.) I’ve also been working one-on-one on songs with Marie-Christine Bornes Varol, who’s one of the foremost Sephardic language specialists in the world. Ladino is actually the only language that she and I share: My French is not super fluent and her English is very fluent on a comprehension level, but she really doesn’t speak it comfortably. So I spend hours with her just speaking Ladino, and my Ladino is not completely fluent either, but it’s a lot better than I thought it was. I’m able to sit with her for several hours and work on songs and learn about cultural things that I didn’t know about, only in Ladino, and it’s been a real blessing.

What a wonderful connection to have with someone.

It’s really incredible. Even some Sephardic people are like, what’s the point of carrying this language that is dying? But for me, so much of the flavor of our culture is housed in this language and music is the best vehicle for connecting with that. I’ve gone from connecting with songs that I knew as a kid when I really didn’t speak Ladino to being able to converse with somebody in this language that is so endangered. It’s truly special.

And where is your Sephardic family from, do you know?

I know that our last name is “Perez,” and that they came during the German immigration into the United States. But I don’t know a ton about them because my grandmother can’t remember the names of her grandparents. So I’ve been doing some of my own research to find out where exactly my family went after the expulsion. Did they go into the Ottoman Empire and then come to Central Europe? Or were they part of the community of Sephardic people that lived in Germany for a period of time? I don’t know. I just know what their last name was, and I know that we’re Sephardic.

It’s sometimes painful. For a lot of Sephardic people in Paris, it’s close enough that maybe their grandparents spoke Ladino; they didn’t have this disparate American immigration experience. But on the other hand, [not knowing] has really allowed me to not be so bought into my own specific genealogical experience. For example, there’s kind of a divide between Moroccan Sephardic people and Turkish Sephardic people. Turkish Sephardic people will sometimes be like, the Moroccans aren’t really Sephardic and their language isn’t really Ladino — because Moroccan Sephardic people speak Haketia, a dialect of Ladino that’s closer to Spanish. There’s all this back and forth. But to me, because I don’t have a personal familial connection to one specific community, it’s all part of Sephardic culture and I’m interested in all of it.

It seems like it’s almost freer to just identify as part of the diaspora.

Right. I’m grateful that this music speaks to me and that I have a personal connection to it, and I’m grateful that I’ve been embraced by the Sephardic community in Paris. But at the same time, as an artist, there’s a lot more to what I’m doing than just delving into my own identity.

I’m asking myself a lot of deeper questions about roots in general and the importance of delving into an endangered tradition. There are two responses I get. Either people are like, this is so eclectic, why are you dedicating your talent to creating music in this language that people aren’t speaking? Or — for instance, there was a recent article about the klezmer scene, but the person who wrote it behaved as if Eastern European Jewish culture were the only Jewish culture, but there’s just so much diversity. I’m just as obsessed with unearthing diversity within Jewish culture, even if it’s not Sephardic, even if it’s just helping people realize that there are so many different types of Jews.

Did that drive to unearth Jewish culture also inspire “Oras Dezaoradas”?

Before the album, I was doing what people often do: singing songs in the melody I’d always heard them sung in, and treating them as if that were tradition — just doing my own arrangement of it. And then I had this realization that a lot of times, the words, especially of the older ballads, are much older than the melody. For songs that come from before the expulsion, nobody knows what that music sounded like. For example, “Kuando El Ray Nimrod” is a really famous Sephardic song that a lot of people know. The words are about 1100 years-old, but the melody is only about 150 years-old. Some of the words of the song don’t actually fit into the melody.

So it suddenly dawned on me that we don’t know exactly who put these words into this melody, or who decided to write this new song and use a melody inspired by Greek music or Ottoman music or whatever. Hispanists were interested in the history of Spanish culture that was being carried by these ballads. But they ignored the fact that there were so many additions to the tradition over time.

It wasn’t that Sephardic people were just singing old Hispanic ballads — there was clearly innovation happening. Somebody created new melodies for these words. And people like Flory Jagoda, a famous Sephardic singer, were known for [reviving] a repertoire of nearly extinct Sephardic music from Bosnia. But she also wrote so many of her own songs — all of my favorite songs of hers are originals.

I started having these exciting experience of being like, this [music] is still alive, and people have added to it; not all of these melodies are original to the lyrics. I thought: I can write my own melodies to some of these songs.

I started doing it with songs where the words really spoke to me, but the melody felt off, or didn’t carry the meaning of the song in a way that felt present in my life in 2021. That just opened a whole door of creativity. I’m really steeped in American fiddle music tradition and I was able to write melodies that take into account my musical influences as a millennial person in the 21st century. And at the same time, I still have Jewish sensibility around melody — I love a minor key.

That allowed me to create my own style. And then I was able to write my own songs in Ladino — and even write my own songs in English that were connected to the songs in Ladino. I could write new verses to some of the old songs if the melody felt really beautiful to me, but the song only had two verses because the other verses were lost in history. So that’s really what inspired the album.

It feels like the beginning of an exploration. I plan to make more music in Ladino, and I plan to make more music in English that connects to it. A big part of it [Sephardic balladry] is that it’s very much a tradition that women have carried forward. There are a lot of songs on the album with really empowered female characters and songs about women’s experiences in their day-to-day life. It’s why I named the album “Oras Dezaoradas” because it means “Hours Without Hours” — which I interpret as finding a key that helps you connect to something [from] a long time ago and bring that tradition forward, so those words feel like [your] words and this old ancient story feels like [your] story. [The album is] like a timeless clock, which is the literal translation.

Which of the songs are originals and which are adapted?

So all the melodies on the album are original, except for the very last song on the album. That’s a traditional song called “Porke Yorach Blanka Ninya” and I sang it pretty much the way it would be sung with that particular melody.

“Oras Dezaoradas,” “Este Noche Te Amare” and “La Galud” are all completely original melodies — I wrote those songs in collaboration with Marie-Christine Bornes Varol, with adapted lyrics from one or multiple Ladino sources.

I did a lot of research into the first song, “Duermite Mi Alma,” because it’s a pretty famous Ladino song. But only the first half of it is really well known: “Sleep, my darling / Sleep, my sweetheart / Your father is out with another woman / I followed him / I saw him / I saw where he was going.” And that’s where it ends.

But I was having a deep conversation with Susana Weich-Shahak, who’s a really amazing song collector in her 80s. And she said, you’re missing the second half of the storyline. And she had collected a version of that song where he comes back and he says, “Open, my darling / Open, my sweetheart / I’ve returned from a long day on the road.” And she says, “you can spend the day where you spent the night” and then he says, “Demon woman, who told you!”  And she says, “Devil of a man, I discovered it for myself!” And every time I’ve talked about it, I get chills, because I didn’t have to choose between the versions, I was able to take advantage of both of those sets of lyrics in my own version with an original melody.

I’m sure there are traditionalists that are going to be just completely freaked out by what I’m doing. But you can’t move a folk tradition forward without adding new music, and I feel like I have just as much of a right as anybody, mostly because I’m a folk musician. I do everything very organically and this is the closest that I feel like I can get to producing new music that feels like it’s part of a folk tradition, even if I’m creating something totally new.

For those traditionalists, can you tell me more about the process of sourcing and collecting these traditional Sephardic ballads, and then deciding which ones you would revive for the album?

It’s been a pretty organic process. Sometimes I’ll hear a Sephardic song that other artists have covered. There’s a really great duo, they’re two older people in Istanbul, Jak and Janet Esim, whose music I really love. There are books written by Susana Weich-Shahak where she collected a lot of songs from people in the ’60s and ’70s — she always includes a CD of recordings she made of like an older Sephardic person singing alone in their house, songs that they remembered from their childhood. I let the songs and the words speak to me, each one for a different reason.

There’s no way to delve into this culture without a lot of sadness. [Some of these songs] were sung by Jews being taken to concentration camps during the Holocaust — we had to keep in mind that recent history. And a lot of other history is unknown; the Holocaust really resulted in the dissolution of Sephardic language, the destruction of nearly the entire Serbian and Greek Sephardic communities. Many Jews from North Africa emigrated to Israel and learned Hebrew so they didn’t continue to speak their language. It’s a sad history, it’s a really painful history. But there’s still a lot of beauty and it’s amazing to hear and to think about what these songs have meant to people at varying moments, especially because there have been so many diasporas within Sephardic history.

Something I love about the album is that, as you said, there are such strong voices, especially female voices. What do you want your listeners to understand about these Sephardic women and peoples?

I originally wrote “Esta Noche Te Amare” years [ago] in English. It was an experiment with this trope in balladry, very common in American and British Isles ballads, called the night visitor trope: A man knocks on the door in the middle of the night and then he later abandons the woman. She wants him to marry her and he refuses. I had this idea about writing the reverse, where the woman at the end is not interested in continuing to be with the man. I wrote it in English and it just felt weird — it was a good idea, but it didn’t feel believable for some reason. And then when we were working on [“Oras Dezaoradas”], Marie-Christine and I translated it into Ladino; we were like, this sounds perfect. That’s such a testament to the empowered female character in Ladino balladry, that it doesn’t feel strange that this would exist.

I hope people get it. There are so many negative ideas about Jewish women — like the J.A.P. thing, or that Hasidic people are really uptight about sex. But what an amazing character in “Morena Me Yaman,” who’s totally in control of her own sexuality and doesn’t care what society thinks and is optimistic. The second verse goes, “They shoot arrows at me / If they are the arrows of love / May they fly straight!” To me, that speaks to what a Jewish mother might tell her daughter about others being jealous: just ward off the evil eye and don’t think about what other people are going to say. It reminds me of something my own grandma would tell me.

So to me, [the album] is a response to anything monolithic in how we’re viewed as a people, and a way to carry some nuanced female aspects of our tradition forward.

I also wanted to talk about “La Galud.” You said that one is original, but were there any historical texts that informed it? Because I felt like this song spoke to the experience of the expulsion.

It’s so interesting you heard it that way. I really wrote that song… it’s a tricky subject. I suppose it could also be applied to the expulsion, but I wrote that song about situations where there are people stuck on two sides of a massive political divide. And so I actually was thinking the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But I think it’s wonderful that you heard it as part of Sephardic history, because the underlying theme of it is this divide between ordinary people. You could easily take that kind of story — and look at what’s happening in other places, like Ukraine and Russia.

I’m currently living at an artist residency and I have a lot of Palestinian friends. I think a lot about these monolithic ideas of who Jews are and how problematic that is for political issues like [the crisis in Israel-Palestine.] So I was writing the song from that perspective, and I wrote it in Ladino as a poetic commentary — we’ve almost lost the ability to talk about simultaneous narratives, you know? That two groups of people can have completely opposing narratives about the same situation. It felt like poetic justice to write this song and sing it in a language that is so endangered. But it’s really interesting to hear that it resonated from a Sephardic diaspora experience, which is a side of that song that I just hadn’t considered.

In the press release for the album, you said, “I was always hoping I’d find a new voice like this. It took a lot of time for me to feel like it was a valid voice.” Could you expand on that? What prevented you from feeling like your creative voice was valid?

Since there are so few speakers of Ladino, I was initially coming at this album from almost a revivalist perspective. I had to do it on my own, not in the context of a wider community that is singing and speaking it — honestly, these communities are ceasing to exist. I think that’s a challenging place from which to start creating, because if you’re a person like me, someone who is a student of tradition, there’s a point where you’re like, I need someone who’s really inside of this [tradition] to tell me I’m ready, to bequeath me the right to claim this as my own.

That happened when I got contacted by this label in Paris called Lior éditions, which specializes in Sephardic music and is run by the Vice President of the Sephardic cultural organization in Paris. They weren’t just like, we’re going to [fund your] album. They were like, we approve of what you’re trying to do with this music. That was a huge deal, because they are representative of Sephardic community in Paris.

That’s fantastic. OK, one last question: what drives you to incorporate your Jewishness into your music?

Oh, I just can’t not. Sometimes I feel really envious of people that are so inside of a Jewish community that basically everyone they know is Jewish and their whole world is just this Jewish world. My world doesn’t feel like that. I have some of that connectivity, but I also have this world that branches in all these different directions, and I have so many close friends that probably didn’t meet a Jewish person until they were adults. Sometimes it’s hard to be… I can feel it when, for others, I’m so Jewish to them. There are times where it’s painful — it hurts to present this part of your identity without knowing if every part of your life is going to accept it.

Also, there are so many Jewish people outside of the Jewish world that feel no connectivity with Jewish culture at all. I think some of [my desire to include my Jewishness] comes from the separation I feel between the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world. I cannot feel like myself and not incorporate [Jewishness]. It’s on every level for me: my sense of spirituality, my sense of right and wrong. The most rooted part of me, the part that feels like I’ve been outside of things, is the most Jewish part of me.

So I guess I’m driven to include that part of myself, regardless of what people think. And to insist that people see me with my Jewishness, and that I don’t have to be more Jewish for Jewish people or less Jewish for non-Jewish people — that I’m just the way that I am. Being Jewish is an integral part of who I am; it’s not all that I am, but it’s important.

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